Q: My second grader is struggling with reading Hebrew. He seems to be just below grade level in English reading, but he is completely uninterested in kriyah. Do you have any suggestions for motivation?
A: First, let me congratulate you on addressing this issue when your son is in second grade. Many parents believe that the problem should correct itself, but in reality, the longer we wait with reading (any language), the harder it becomes for children to catch up.
Next, I wanted to outline the reasons why reading is so important. Often, we mistakenly think that reading is a skill relegated to the academic realm. We think, “So what if a child doesn’t read at grade level? Maybe he won’t do well in school, but he can still be a successful adult.” In fact, research has shown that literacy is directly connected to both social and financial success.
In 2009, the National Institute for Literacy released the following statement, “The ability to read and write is fundamental to full participation in American society. Our nation of farmers and mechanics has been transformed into one in which economic, civic, and social success depend on educational attainment for all, particularly in literacy.”
Not only do children who read proficiently have an easier time in all academic areas, they also are more capable in social situations. They are more confident and more independent and therefore function more smoothly with their peers. Conversely, illiteracy has a shocking connection to crime. Statistics show that 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Of course, I am not saying that any child who struggles with reading will be a criminal, rather I am indicating that when academic problems go undetected and untreated, they can extend well beyond the classroom.
Okay, so we talked about the very important reasons to learn to read English (which you can share with your son as well, if you think it will help), but what are some separate motivating factors for kriyah? As a Jewish male, kriyah is an essential part of participation in communal life. Men are called up for aliyos in shul and your son will undoubtedly lein from the Torah for his bar mitzvah. Aside from these public opportunities that create pressure to perform, being able to daven in shul is contingent upon kriyah. In addition, learning gemara without any knowledge of kriyah is almost impossible.
On top of all of the motivating factors I listed above, setting up a chavrusah with an older boy who he admires could help motivate him to excel. Intertwining social activity with academic pursuits is a great way to stimulate educational success. However, if your son still needs to master the basic skills of kriyah consider working with a reading specialist. Because Hebrew is a completely phonetic language, learning kriyah through a phonics approach can be quick and simple. Within a few weeks, your son can gain the confidence to read and write Hebrew. Remember, the earlier you start with him, the less time you will need to catch up (and the less mounting frustration he will have accumulated).
While motivating a child to learn is a bit like asking the grass to grow, with a bit of sunshine and water, even the most stubborn seed can blossom.